Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Some Closing Impressions Of Cambodia

Some Closing Impressions Of Cambodia

For most people, whether to visit Thailand or Cambodia might be determined by the flip of a coin. In order to add a smidgen more information to help with the decision, I present the following observations and anecdotes. It is understood that a one week visit to three cities in Cambodia is a rather limited sample, but here are a few of my experiences.

It appears to me that Cambodia is much poorer, in general, than Thailand. The rural areas are serviced by poor dusty roads and most of the homes and local villages are dependent on a single water well while no sanitation is obvious. I always wonder how the people ever stay healthy in such a dusty environment in winter and soaked to the skin in monsoon season. When I complain about hot summers or cold winters at home I just need to remember my little Cambodian experience. One sanitation tip that I did witness was a washroom where the men’s urinals had a pineapple kebab in the trough to enhance the smell. At home, I have seen moth balls used, but never skewered pineapple!

Corruption is one of the countries biggest problems at almost every turn. We experienced two examples first hand. When we landed in Siem Reap, we lined up with a hundred other passengers to get our Cambodian visa. I asked a custom officer who was standing near me if the fee was still $30 per visa. He said yes but if I had ten dollars more he could get it done so that I didn’t have to wait. I handed him our two passports and $70 and in five minutes he had bypassed all of the others in line and his buddies fast tracked our visa. A pretty good $10 investment on my part, although I was also supporting the very corruption I am criticizing. At one of the Angkor sites, I caught the eye of a police man, and he pointed at the police badge on his chest and asked, “ Do you want to buy it?” I was so taken aback I didn’t have a chance to think about it. I am sure corruption also exists in Thailand but I have not witnessed it in the same way. 

Travelling through the country, the roadsides must have at least five little shops in every kilometre selling everything you can imagine - drinks, food, fruit, clothes, etc. One day I wondered what all the yellow liquid was I saw in racks in front of many of the shops. They were bottled in one and two litre used Coke and water bottles and I assumed they were a kind of local lemonade or fruit drink. When I asked our guide, he told me all of the little yellow bottles were gasoline! In fact, every roadside shop was a potential roadside bomb. Because over 50% of all vehicles are scooters or small motorbikes, all their gas tanks can hold is a litre or two. Wow, talk about a disaster waiting to happen!

It is not uncommon to see people riding bicycles, scooters, and motor bikes everywhere. They are definitely the vehicles of choice. There are often 3 to 5 riders on one bike or they are carrying a cargo that almost makes the rider invisible. When you drive past a high school I estimate there are at least 400 scooters and 100 bikes parked in the parking lot. The highways are all single lanes in each direction. With all of the shoulder traffic, cattle, dogs, farm implements and a few trucks, driving is a game of zig zag or twist and shout, at 60 mph. Driving is not for the feint of heart!

On the positive side, the people who we interacted with were very kind and friendly. Our tour guide, who was born in a Cambodian refugee camp, and our driver, who was born in a slum village that he took us to see, couldn’t have been nicer. They were both polite and ever vigilant. Whenever we were climbing a staircase or over an obstacle, they were always there with a helping hand or a word of caution. I haven’t been this babied since 1944. I could get used to it!

Hotel staffs were also extremely friendly and helpful. The last two hotels we stayed in gave us a departing gift when we checked out. When was the last time one of our finer western chain hotels said thank you for your business by presenting you with a handmade scarf?  Never, you say! In Cambodia, it seems to be the norm. 

Finally, I would advise those interested, to travel to Cambodia soon. It is very cheap relative to accommodation and meals. One night we had a seven course meal in a special restaurant that teaches disadvantaged youth cooking skills. We had dumplings, corn fritters, a diced pork salad, and steamed pork buns for appetizers and then chicken curry and a huge dish of prawns and rice followed by two desserts for the astronomical price of $15 per person. The prawns alone would have been $20 - $30 at home. Siem Reap in particular is a wonderful archeological site that is going to explode in popularity very, very soon! You have been forewarned!

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